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Economy

Diversity is a key driver for businesses to succeed: panelists

Mix of genders, races and demographics in its workforce can boost a company's performance in new markets

From right: Lee Hwok-Aun, senior fellow, Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore; Aireen Omar, CEO of AirAsia; and Johan Raslan, former executive chairman of PwC Malaysia

KUALA LUMPUR -- Diversity in a workforce can help drive companies to perform better and gain deeper insights into local markets, according to panelists at a discussion organized by the Nikkei Asian Review on Thursday in Kuala Lumpur.

Ensuring diversity in its workforce is key for Southeast Asian low-cost airline AirAsia in driving innovation that helps the company expand rapidly in local markets, according to Aireen Omar, the company's executive director and CEO.

"We believe that having diversity helps in terms of better idea-sharing within ourselves, moving forward faster, embracing the differences and understanding what is best in each local market," Aireen said during a panel discussion on "Asia's New Wave -- Beyond Diversity." The discussion was chaired by Gwen Robinson, the publication's chief editor.

AirAsia was the first airline to hire a female pilot in Malaysia, and has since increased their number to around 100, Aireen said. But despite the number of capable female students studying science, only a few choose careers in related fields, such as engineering. Aireen believes direct engagement with the students is the key to changing perceptions toward such jobs. "My dream is to see the director of flight operations be a female," Aireen said.

The dialogue was between Aireen and two other panelists, former executive chairman of PwC Malaysia Johan Raslan and Lee Hwok-Aun, senior fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS) in Singapore. Speaking to an audience of around 180 people, they discussed a range of topics, including how Asian companies can work to ensure diversity in their workforce and the government's role in its implementation.

Johan echoed Aireen on how diversity in the workforce can support the company's business performance. "I've always found that diverse teams do better than non-diverse ones ... in all the different KPIs," Johan said. He said successful female role models can encourage women to enter careers that have traditionally been dominated by men. "When [former Malaysian Central Bank Gov.] Zeti Aziz became the governor, it had a huge effect. All the girls wanted to join," Johan said.

Meanwhile, ISEAS's Lee pointed out that often it is longstanding customs that work against women, and gave the example of academic forums that are dominated by men because organizers fail to "look beyond the go-to people."

On the role of the governments, the panelists had varying views. AirAsia's Aireen said the legal enforcement of diversity, such as setting up minimum quotas for female employees at companies, can work initially but shouldn't remain a permanent rule, as this could lead to companies hiring more women "just to fill in the law." "What the company should be doing in the first place is to find the right talent to be able to achieve what they need to achieve," Aireen said.

Johan was more positive on active intervention by governments. Asked if it would be necessary to strictly enforce quotas -- such as in Norway, which made it compulsory for companies have at least 40% female presence on the board to remain listed on the country's stock exchange -- Johan answered no. "I can't really see that the Norwegian economy would go downhill because of this," he said.

Last month, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak stated that the government will "name and shame" listed companies with no female representation on their boards by 2018. Echoing this statement, Johan encouraged the audience not to condemn the government, but to focus on "name and faming" the companies that have successfully increased their female participation.

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